Better slides make better presentations in Bev Sher’s Atoms to Cells Biology 100 course

In a Nutshell

Students in Bev Sher’s Biology 100 course learn how atoms are the building blocks of cells. They also learn how good Powerpoint slides are the building blocks of good presentations. In this DIY, Prof. Sher walks us through her assignment, the Journal Club Group Presentation, and its use of multimedia presentations. With the right examples, the right readings, and the right feedback from Prof. Sher, students created great presentations that helped them communicate with their audiences.

Course Description

In this course, students learned to use quantitative as well as qualitative information about molecules and cells to develop better intuition for why cells behave as they do. Taught as a seminar, the course spent a good deal of class time in discussion of course readings. For each reading, students needed to prepare in the following ways:

  1. Come to class with a typed list of discussion points that were collected at the end of each class and counted toward class participation.
  2. Post the discussion point they most wanted the class to consider by 8am on the day of class.

Another key element was the collaborative nature of the class. Science is collaborative, and scientists always seek feedback from their colleagues when preparing papers and oral presentations. For this reason, the instructor encouraged students to collaborate in this way as well: thus, collaboration and peer feedback was integral to the daily discussion and many assignments in this course.

Course and Assignment Objectives

The “Big Idea” at the heart of this course is that size matters: in fact, life is possible only because of the way the world works at the nanoscale. In this course, students explored the phenomena that take place at the molecular and cellular scales, using quantitative as well as qualitative information about molecules and cells to develop better intuition for why cells behave as they do.

In this course, students:

  • Acquire the tools of basic cell biological numeracy
  • Explore some of the big scientific questions of molecular and cellular biology
  • Develop better intuition about biological phenomena that take place at the molecular and cellular scales
  • Improve their ability to make well-informed scientific estimates, as well as their confidence in their estimation skills
  • Improve their oral communication skills, as well as their confidence in those skills
  • Improve their visual communication skills, as well as their confidence in those skills


The Journal Club Group Presentation assignment was worth 20% of the final grade for the class.

Students used slides to present a scientific article in a journal club format. Students were grouped by the instructor.

Guidelines for this assignment

  • Students select from a set of articles posted 3 weeks before the presentations were due.
  • Students submit a tentative outline and copies of the slides 1 week before the presentation.
  • Students practice their talk for another group during the week before the in-class presentation. Audience members submit their feedback on these practice talks.
  • In the presentation, students overview the article and provide background information to help explain it, answer questions, and direct a class discussion. Students present for 15 minutes (dividing speaking time roughly evenly among group members) followed by five to ten minutes of class discussion.
  • Other students in the course read the article in advance and submit a typed set of questions on the day of the presentation. In addition, each student is required to ask a total of five questions in class during journal club presentations over the course of the semester

Lessons Learned

Things that worked well:

  • One of the key components to making sure students learn what you expect them to learn is to be explicit about what they will be learning, whether in the syllabus, during a class session, or on an assignment sheet. This is true for both content-based and skills-based objectives. One thing that Prof. Sher does to reinforce this is to ask students at the end of the semester to provide some take-away messages about what they learned from the course. This exercise helps the students realize what they’ve learned and compare it to what they were told they would learn.

Things to think about improving for next time:

  • Although some groups requested a meeting with Dr. Sher before their presentations, this was not mandatory in the Spring 2017 iteration of the course. The next time the course is taught, these group meetings with the instructor will be built into the syllabus.
  • This course originally did not include the fourth hour, but in the next iteration, the fourth hour will be used for such things as group preparation meetings and meetings with the instructor.

Shared Resources

Try it Yourself / Tools Used


  • The Craft of Scientific Presentations, by Michael Alley (Springer, 2013). This text is a great resource for anyone who wants to be a more effective presenter, especially in the sciences. Of specific interest is the author’s explication of the “assertion-evidence structure” of presentation slides.




About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College